Time for Indian Government to reassert its stand
Harkishan Singh Surjeet writes on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka in Ganashakti Newspaper, the daily paper of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The secessionist threat which India's southern neighbour, Sri Lanka, has been facing from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for the last 17 years, has intensified recently and threatens to have grave repercussions not only for Sri Lanka but for the South Asian region as a whole. During the last 17 years, people of both the major communities in Sri Lanka have suffered immeasurable losses and gone through severe ordeals. According to a report, more than 60,000 people have lost their lives in these years. Property worth tens of millions of rupees has been destroyed. Further, a large number of Tamils of that country have come to India in several batches, and are living as refugees here in pitiable conditions. The basic question As we know, there are two main segments of the population of Sri Lanka, or one may say three. While the Simhalas constitute the majority of the population, Tamils form a sizeable minority and are preponderantly concentrated in the North and East provinces. Apart from them, Muslims form a good chunk of the population and play an important role in the socio-economic and political life of the country. Most of them are of the Tamil ethnic group, but do not support the idea of secession from Sri Lanka. The crux of the problem lies here. While the Tamils have been living in the country for a very long time, for most of the time they have been deprived of the basic democratic rights that are essential for their overall development. The problem has been exacerbated since the mid-'50s and this is what led to severe discontent among the Tamils of the country. Two types of solutions to this problem have been advanced. While some of the Tamil groups have been demanding regional autonomy for the Tamil-majority areas within the framework of Sri Lankan unity, in order to ensure justice and fair treatment for them, the LTTE has been trying to exploit this discontent for its objective of carving out a separate state for the Tamils, called the Tamil Eelam. Autonomy or secession? This is therefore the basic question that one confronts in the context of Sri Lanka today. But the LTTE has done its best not to allow this problem to be resolved in a proper and peaceful way. During the last decade or so, the LTTE even went on to systematically eliminate leaders of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and of groups like the EPRLF who were fighting for regional autonomy for the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka. The LTTE's stand has alienated the Muslim Congress also, that is fighting for the legitimate rights of the Muslims of that country but stands against secession. At one point, the LTTE was forced to realise that its secessionist stand enjoyed no sympathy from the mass of the people in the region. It agreed to join the process of restoring peace in the country through the grant of autonomy for the North and East provinces, and even to take part in the proposed elections in these provinces. But soon it went back on its word, and started the orgy of violence anew. In the last few years, after the present President, Ms Chandrika Kumartunge, assumed office, she made several efforts to solve this problem by conferring adequate provincial autonomy on the Tamil areas, and also tried to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table. But all these efforts came to nought because of the LTTE's intransigence. Grave implications for India This question has grave implications for India as well. The problem, from the Indian point of view, is not only the influx of refugees who have a natural affinity with the Indian Tamils. There are threats to the very security of the South Asian region where imperialist powers are trying their best to intervene, in order to undermine the sovereignty and independence of the countries of this region. This is naturally a big cause of worry for India. At the same time, the LTTE has been trying to forge an understanding and working relationship with the Kashmiri militants and helping the latter with arms and in other ways. It is well known that the LTTE has no dearth of arms and ammunition; it is even better equipped than the Sri Lankan armed forces in respect of certain types of weapons. Therefore, any liaison between the LTTE and the Kashmiri militants or other extremist groups in India poses a grave threat to India's unity and integrity. That the LTTE can go to any extent in order to realise its objective is clear from the way it assassinated the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, nine years ago, on May 21, 1991. To date, the Government of India has been consistently taking a firm position that the problem of Sri Lankan Tamils should be resolved within the framework of Sri Lankan unity, and has been of the opinion that the Tamils should be granted regional autonomy in the interest of their socio- cultural, economic and political development. On one occasion, in July 1987, the Government of India sent its peace- keeping force into Sri Lanka at the request of the UNP Government of that country, but the move was widely misunderstood and it was said that the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) was sent in order to assist the Sri Lankan armed forces against the Tamils. On the other hand, Simhala chauvinists propagated that the IPKF was sent to help the Tamils against the Simhalas. Later on, a consensus was evolved in our country that this move could have been avoided; the IPKF was withdrawn accordingly. But at the same time, the country, by a consensus of opinion, opposed any division of Sri Lanka. Differences in the NDA Yet there are certain parties in India that are taking a chauvinist position and supporting the LTTE without realising that this would cause grievous harm to the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils, and to India as well. Some of these parties, like the DMK, PMK and MDMK, are constituents of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP, that is currently ruling in the central government of India. Of late, these parties have become extra-vocal in support of the LTTE and have been trying to pressurise the Government of India not to help the Sri Lankan Government in any way. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi, openly reiterated his party's support to the idea of a separate Eelam. These parties are also seeking to pressurise the Government of India against making any effort towards restoration of peace in Sri Lanka. After the present round of confrontation intensified in Sri Lanka, and later in reply to the debate on the question in the Indian parliament, Jaswant Singh, India's Foreign Affairs Minister, reiterated the Indian Government's consistent stand on the Sri Lankan question, reaffirming that the Government of India stands for Sri Lanka's unity and territorial integrity. But certain statements issued by others, including India's Prime Minister, were at variance with the Foreign Minister's views. Later the Prime Minister did try to demarcate himself from the position taken by the DMK, MDMK and PMK, but yet he has done nothing to persuade Karunanidhi to retract his statement. This can only compromise India's image in the world community and its standing in diplomatic circles. Imperialism on prowl In the unipolar world of today, when the US imperialists are striving to impose their hegemony on the whole world, with there being no countervailing force to their designs, division of any country can only mean that it would be weakened, and that further means giving the imperialist forces a handle to intervene in that country and in the surrounding region. This applies to Sri Lanka as well. In case Sri Lanka is pushed to the wall, it would naturally have no option but to approach other countries for material and moral support. Already Kfir jets and fighter planes from Israel have started arriving in Sri Lanka; the latter has also taken the step of restoring its diplomatic ties with Israel. And everybody very well knows who stands behind Israel. There were reports that Israel consented to send its Kfir jets to Sri Lanka only after the US administration gave its tacit approval. There is nothing surprising in it. Sri Lanka is located virtually in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which gives it a unique strategic importance. The country therefore fits very well in the geo-strategic scheme of US imperialism, provided the latter has its way. This was the reason the US has long been trying to have a naval base in Trincomalee, though to date it has not been successful. It is in this light that one needs to view the Sri Lankan situation. Insisting that the Government of India has absolutely no role to play in relation to that country, just what the DMK, PMK and MDMK are doing, would mean giving the US imperialists precisely that opportunity which they have long been seeking. Can the Government of India really afford to take such a course that would be detrimental to India's national interests? Can it really allow Indian security to be jeopardised? It is high time the Government of India reasserts its firm position on the Sri Lankan issue, steers clear of chauvinism, and comes to the help of the Sri Lankan Government in finding a negotiated and principled solution to the ethnic question so as to secure for the Tamils their legitimate rights within the framework of Sri Lanka's unity. Such a move would also give a rebuff to the imperialist powers who are trying to find a foothold in the region.